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Census Delays Push Virginia Elections Into ‘Uncharted Territory’

Signs sit on sidewalk outside polling place
Voters approved a constitutional amendment creating of a new redistricting commission last November. The new group can't begin drawing new districts until it receives updated data from the U.S. Census Bureau. (Photo: Alex Scribner/VPM News)

The U.S. Census Bureau won’t hand over key data Virginia needs for redistricting until at least July 30, placing the state in a unique bind.

Virginia and New Jersey are the only states holding legislative elections this year; all 100 members of the House of Delegates are up for election. Despite past delays at the bureau, many lawmakers held out hope that Virginia’s new redistricting commission would have time to draw legislative districts ahead of bumped-back August primaries.

The timeline announced by a Census spokesperson in a webinar on Wednesday makes even that schedule impossible. The Census has been bogged down by delays caused by the pandemic and last minute changes pushed by former President Donald Trump. 

“There's just no way to get this done in time to have an election for the House of Delegates in 2021,” said Del. Marcus Simon (D-Fairfax), who sits on the redistricting commission.

The Virginia Constitution specifies that new maps “shall be implemented for the November general election” but doesn't spell out what happens if that's not possible.

“It's uncharted territory,” said Brian Cannon, director of the advocacy group OneVirginia2021. “There’s no clear answers.”

Under one scenario, Attorney General Mark Herring could issue an opinion spelling out a plan to implement the new maps. A spokesperson for Herring did not immediately respond to a request for comment. The General Assembly could also come up with its own plan. Either way, the issue could end up in courts. 

Simon said House Democrats had loosely discussed some options. He said he’d personally prefer to avoid the three-elections-in-a-row outcome: elections this year on old maps, 2022 on new ones, and back to the usual cycle in 2023.

“I think for candidates on both sides, the idea of trying to run three years in a row is daunting, and for the commonwealth, would be expensive,” Simon said.

New Jersey also has off-year elections. But voters in the state opted to delay redistricting until 2022 if the Census came in late. 

Virginia's existing House map was originally drawn by Republicans with support from many Black Democrats. In 2019, a federal court ruled that lawmakers had illegally packed Black voters and ordered 11 of those districts redrawn.

Last November, voters approved a constitutional amendment creating a bipartisan, 16-member redistricting committee made up equally of citizens and lawmakers. The amendment spells out a strict timeline for the commission, which has 45 days after receiving census data to submit its proposed General Assembly maps to the legislature.

Editor's Note: An earlier version of this story misstated the contents of New Jersey's November ballot referendum. It delayed redistricting, not elections.

Ben Paviour covers courts and criminal justice for VPM News with a focus on accountability.
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